‘You dying in your twenties is not romantic,’ he told me, his eyes dense black, half in shadow. He shook his head. ‘It would be a waste.’
I remember that we were in my living room at the time, and that I didn’t say anything back, but I thought about it for a long time after, the word waste swirling like an oil slick. I knew he was right. It would be a waste. But when I’d said I would die in my twenties, it was never about the romance of it, the old story of the young artist perishing before her time. It was more of a knowing. A knowing that it was my time.
I die on the eve of the day I was born, twenty-nine, almost thirty. I’ve always liked the numbers twenty-nine, two and nine, much more than I’ve ever liked thirty, three and zero: two is red, and nine dark pink; three is uneasy green and zero is empty white. But contrary to what you might be thinking, I don’t do it on purpose. Not really.
Then again, maybe I do. We’re made up of myriad choices, aren’t we?
I shrug. Shiver. It’s cold here, on the wet stern deck, on the edge of this decade and the next. Beneath me, it is dark, icebergs suspended in the grey. It is all spreading. And I look across at Brooke and she winks and I smile and it hurts my face.
I hold my breath. Do we choose to breathe?
I don’t know. I still don’t know. I wish you’d told me the answer. I wish you’d told me a lot of things.
Like that when I finally see the green flash, it will be equally amazing and dull.
Or that life is a series of words and the punctuation is in all the wrong places and when you want to take a breath someone has removed the comma so you, have to take one there and if you didn’t too bad it’s already, gone.
Maggie, I wish you’d told me. At sea, no one can hear you scream.
Caught in the in-between, I imagine the earth is rocking. It’s all back and forth, back and forth.
But now I’m coming to, and there’s drool caked to my chin and fur on my teeth, and I’m peeling apart puffy eyelids to see the sun through a skylight that’s only a few feet above my head. The sun is swinging back and forth in the sky and I realise the earth really is rocking. I prop myself up on one elbow. My head is pounding like someone’s clobbered me with a brick. I look around and, as the room comes into focus, I wait for this all to make sense. But it doesn’t. The walls are curved, and no wider than the bed— if you’d even call this a bed. I’m lying on a wafer-thin mattress, wedged between a huge canvas bag and a fishing rod. There’s a weird thumping outside and, when I look up, the sun is still swinging. I feel a tightening in my chest, a fierce contraction of my ribcage, like my breath is caught and can’t get out. Where the fuck am I?
I’m wearing clothes, at least: a silk dress, my denim jacket, two pink socks and one boot. I feel under my dress and I’ve got undies on. The contents of my bag are sprawled around my pillow. Wallet, check. Cards and cash are still there. I grab my phone, hands trembling. The battery is dead. ‘Shit,’ I mutter.
Wriggling out of the bed, I find my other boot on the floor beside a bucket full of sponges. My legs are wobbling as I clamber out of the room. I knock my head on the roof. Who the hell designed this house? I’m tall but I’m not that tall.
The earth is still rocking as I stumble into a room with a kitchenette, sling bunk beds, slit windows, and a table that’s bolted to the floor. I feel my way through, grabbing corners and edges for balance, to keep myself upright, dragging myself towards a ladder that leads to open sky.
Climbing up, it takes my eyes a second to adjust. The light is piercing.
‘Oh. My. God.’ The words are barely a whisper.
In front of me is an old man wearing an oilskin jacket, an orange beanie. His skin is weathered, salt-encrusted, with sunspots and a coarse white beard. Beyond him is ocean. Its surface is dark and choppy. My body shudders, my spine curls.
The horizon is impossibly far away.
I stare at him blankly.
‘Where am I?’
‘Sorry?’ he says. ‘You’ll have to speak up.’ He puts a finger to his ear. ‘Bit deaf.’
‘Where am I?’ I repeat, louder this time.
‘You’re on the Tasman.’
At my feet, there are ropes coiled around metal stumps, and lines threaded up a towering pole. The old man pulls on one of the ropes and the creases in the sail above me are smoothed out, like skin pulled tight around bone. I feel the boat pucker, then lift a little.
‘The Tasman Sea,’ he says, pointing to the endless expanse of ocean, as if I’m meant to recognise this water as distinct from any other water. ‘But more specifically,’ the old man says, ‘you’re on a yacht.’ He rests a hand on the boat’s deck. ‘And her name is Sea Rose.’
I feel like a hand is wrapped around my throat, squeezing.
I might throw up. ‘I need to get off.’
‘You will. In a few days . . . when we get to New Zealand.’
The blood drains from my face. ‘What?!’
‘I’m sailing her to New Zealand and needed an extra hand. You said you wanted to come.’
‘Are you kidding? When did I say that?’
I sink back into alcohol-soaked hours, searching for something, anything. But last night is a gaping black hole.
‘Why would you let me agree to this? I was legless last night!’
The boat rises over a wave, slams down. My head hurts. I feel bile surge in the back of my throat. ‘You’re basically kidnapping me.’
‘Kidnapping me! You’ll go to jail for this.’
‘Well,’ he says, reclining with a wide smile, ‘I’ll only go to jail if someone finds out . . . I guess I’ll just have to kill you.’
I take half a step away and my ankle rolls on a coil of rope.
I fall back, landing heavily on the deck, the wind knocked out of my lungs.
Suddenly, the old man bursts into laughter, his eyes disappearing between deep wrinkles. Between bouts he wheezes, ‘You right, kid?’
I try to speak. But I can’t.
‘Look over your shoulder,’ he says.
I clamber to my feet and turn around to see land. A stretch of beach, houses dotted between greenery, a rocky headland, a lighthouse . . . I know that lighthouse. It’s Barrenjoey. Sydney.
We’re still in Sydney.
I turn back to him.
‘You know where we are now?’
‘We’re going to the RPA Yacht Club in Newport; I need to drop my Rose off for a clean. Should be there within the hour with this wind. I’m giving you a lift back to the city.’
‘Chivalry, now . . . doesn’t change . . .’ I cough; I’m still winded from the fall. ‘You . . . kidnapped me.’
‘You, young lady, were blind. Couldn’t even tell me your name. Was I supposed to let you go home like that? No. Jane and I had to carry you to the boat.’
‘She manages the restaurant at the CYC. Apparently she found you in the women’s bathroom. I let you sleep the night on board . . . Woke you up this morning, said I needed to get going and you told me to leave you be.’
‘Well, I don’t remember that.’ The cold wind is snaking around my body. I cross my arms, trying to summon any recollection of the night before. ‘Where did you sleep?’
He meets my eye. ‘In my bed,’ he says. ‘At my house.’ And there’s something in his deadpan delivery, in the steadiness of it, that makes me believe him. He smiles gently. ‘You don’t need to worry about me, kid— I’ve only ever loved one woman.’
The smile fades and he looks beyond the horizon. ‘And she’s gone now.’
I relax my arms. ‘What was her name?’
He rests his hand on the boat’s deck again, smooths it the way you touch a lover. ‘Robynne. Robynne Rose.’ He clears his throat. ‘Anyway, I didn’t mean to kidnap you, but I gotta be at the boatyard by ten, and assumed you’d be out until we got there.’
Relief washes over me. ‘This is so weird,’ I say, shuffling towards him, my arm outstretched, offering my hand. ‘But whatever . . . My name’s Olivia.’
He gives me his callused, leather hand and we shake. ‘Mac.’